SEVENTY THOUSAND |
June 21, 2013
Name: Ross Magee
Stationed in: Afghanistan
I walked into the barber shop and the proprietor looked me up and down and returned to cleaning his clippers. Without raising his eyes to mine he asked, “What can we do for you?”
I’d never been in the shop before and I sensed that I was intruding. I felt immediately unwelcome; like perhaps I required an invitation which I didn’t have.
“I need a haircut.”
I climbed into the chair without being motioned to do so, removing the option for him to turn me away, which I sensed was a very real possibility.
I didn’t feel like talking. It didn’t appear that the barber did either, and for that I was quietly grateful. My return to Afghanistan was imminent and a haircut was one of the last things I needed to do before I headed back. The shop was cluttered with magazines and newspapers, none of them carrying news of the war I had been granted a short reprieve from.
There were two barbers in the shop, an old black man with a large pot-belly and a deep, hustling laugh and an even older white man who wore bent glasses and needed a haircut himself. They talked idly with the other customer in the room and ignored me. The barber turned down my collar and the apron snapped as it swooped across my chest. He fastened it tightly around my neck and combed out my hair. I felt him step back and stare at the back of my head.
“This is a terrible haircut. Where did you get it?”
“What the hell were you doing in Afghanistan?”
“I’m in the military. There is a war going on. I’m going back and I need a haircut.”
This was exactly the conversation I didn’t want to have with an oblivious American.
“I’d be afraid to get a haircut in Afghanistan, for fear somebody would throw a grenade in the shop while I was sitting in the chair.”
I ignored his comment and felt my temperature rise as a flush of frustration and anxiety came over me. This was not what I came to the barber shop for. It was suddenly too quiet and claustrophobic. The room seemed to shrink. The apron suddenly felt too tight and I noted the door without moving my eyes. The other barber and the man in his chair had stopped talking. The scissors quit snipping. I resisted the urge to get up and walk out. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply.
“What do you want me to do with this?” he asked as he ran the comb through my hair again.
I resisted the deep urge to snap at him. “Just trim it. I’ll get it cut when I get back. I need it short enough to get back. Just get it off my ears.”
He murmured to himself I suppose, or at least I pretended that was what I thought. I closed my eyes to indicate that I didn’t want to talk, figuring that he’d take the cue and just get on with it. I caught myself falling asleep, which happens almost instantly when I close my eyes and sit still anywhere now. I’ve learned to live with fatigue, but it isn’t overcome by a few weeks of rest, not when its source looms in the distance like something dark and heavy just over the horizon. I struggled to keep my head up and my eyes closed without bobbing my head too much. This task was in itself exhausting.
His voice came to me as if it had been carried from across an ocean. “I thought we brought everybody home.” The tone was clearly serious.
“No. There are about seventy thousand of us.”
“Yes, really,” I said without opening my eyes.
I heard the other man pay and walk out of the door, then the sound of the other barber climbing into his chair and opening the newspaper. There was no reference in the paper to the on-going effort in Afghanistan. In fact, the word “Afghanistan” did not even appear in the paper once. I knew that because I had read the entire thing that morning over a few cups of coffee. I had searched in vain for some bit of information that would confirm that the previous six months of my life might have been recorded in some small way. When I'd left the house that afternoon I carried with me the weight of the anonymous effort of seventy thousand soldiers.
My mind began to turn. I swallowed my surprise and settled on disappointment, the emotion that most often accompanies my exposure to this ignorance in America. I suddenly had no problem staying awake even though my eyes were closed. The clippers buzzed and in my mind’s eye I watched the second hand swoop smoothly across the face of the clock.
“I fixed the back of your hair as best as I could.”
I cussed myself immediately, but before I could speak again the response came from the barber.
I stood up and my hands instinctively went to my hips where they go every time I get out of a chair, or in or out of a vehicle, or a hundred other times during the day. This is normally a reassuring motion, one that confirms that I am prepared. I felt nothing, and panicked for the tenth time that day. Then in a steady, internal voice I reminded myself that I hadn’t left my pistol anywhere. I wasn’t carrying one.
I don’t remember what the barber said when he stepped to the cash register. I put a twenty dollar bill on the counter, turned and walked away. The bell on the door tinkled as I pushed it open and strode towards my truck.
Two weeks later I stepped into the barber shop in Kabul. The barber asked about my health and we chatted in Dari about small things; family, the weather and the coming of summer. He woke me gently when he was done cutting my hair, so as to not startle me.